Social Innovation Labs Produce Solutions Ready for Scale


By Kyle Shantz, Social Innovation Canada


In the Province of Manitoba, more than 11,400 children are involved with Child and Family Services (CFS). Anywhere between 85% and 95% of those children are Indigenous. Every year in Winnipeg, 400 newborns are taken into the care of the province, or ‘apprehended’ as CFS itself refers to the process.

“Birth work is the front line of reclaiming Indigenous communities and establishing healthy family connections,” said Dawn Lavand, one of the first twelve doulas trained in 2017 as part of the Manitoba Indigenous Doula Initiative (MIDI) to provide culturally inclusive support for expecting women and new mothers.

Lavand herself was taken into state care as a baby and she wants to stop the cycle—as does The Winnipeg Boldness Project, a nonprofit social innovation lab that helped MIDI to prototype and pilot their Indigenous doula training program.


“There were four Indigenous ladies who had been meeting with Elders for several years and had a concept to develop training to increase capacity in communities around birth practices. We met with the group, told them about our process, and asked if and how we could support them. We ended up providing funds for them to finalize and validate a curriculum, and then live test it with a group of 12 trainees. It included a practicum that supported 30 families through their births. In addition to funds, we supported with evaluation of the prototype,” says Kara Boles, POP Coordinator at the The Winnipeg Boldness Project. Shortly after the prototype Manitoba Indigenous Doulas Initiative was incorporated.

“The lab context allowed the women to develop their concept in the way that they needed: consulting elders, community validation, compensate trainees, etc.“ The lab setting provided a freedom that directly funded programs, with their preordained methodologies and low risk tolerances, couldn’t. They had “the freedom to fail and learn” says Boles.


There are now two Indigenous Doula groups that continue to build capacity and promote Indigenous birthing practices and support families. One is primarily focused on delivering training in Manitoba and Ontario: Zaagi’Idiwin, the other is currently involved in a five year research project looking at supporting Indigenous women who travel for birth, in partnership with the University of Winnipeg and the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba: Wiijii’idiwag Ikwewag.

Melissa Brown with Zaagi’Idiwin reports some staggering growth:

“Since March 2018, we have trained:

2 Cohorts in Fort Frances (24 total)

2 In Kenora (24 total)

1 Train the trainer course in Bemidji, Minnesota (12)

1 in Winnipeg (14 MCH Workers)

1 in Brandon, Manitoba (18)

A total of: 92 Trained Full Spectrum Indigenous Doulas in 7 months. Next year we will going to Rosebud, South Dakota Window rock, Arizona and New Brunswick.”


Funders and change leaders of all kinds are buying-in. They like the contained risk, the strategic foresight, the diversity of participants and skills, and the promising solutions coming out of labs.  And, with so many labs emerging, longer-term strategies to support this new way of working are needed.

One of the strengths of the emerging models of labs in Canada is how they often bring together funding from across sectors. While internationally, many labs are hosted in Government, one of the intriguing things about Canadian labs is that they have given rise to many more collaborative funding models – often where philanthropy and entrepreneurial non-profits incubate labs with core philanthropic partners, and then seek academic, government and private sector participation, funding and in kind supports as they grow. This is happening alongside an increasingly vibrant government lab ecosystem from the city level, through provinces and up to the federal level.

Keren Perla, Director of Foresight and Design at the Department of Energy at the Government of Alberta says “Lab initiatives that sit outside of government provide a vehicle to reimagine who and how people are engaged to tackle the challenges of today – they enable deep and meaningful collaboration among diverse actors, which can be difficult for government to do in-house. Externally, the lab can become the face of an ambitious and bold effort, essentially taking on the accountability (and risk) related to new solutions.”

Another perspective on funding labs comes from Lindsay Cole, Solutions Lab Manager at City of Vancouver, “Governments, at all levels, fund labs for a wide range of different reasons. It could be because they see the need to bring a new method set into government to work differently on complex challenges. Some are facing extraordinary pressures from people to offer better services and to modernize and digitize, and see labs as a process to help them do that. It could be because they have a particular policy area that is stuck and they need to put some different energy and attention to try to move it. It could be because they want to build more collaborative, engaged, and inclusive processes for problem-solving”

Labs are working so well, many governments are setting up their own. Beyond the labs surveyed in the recent research, some reports suggest there are more than 50 labs in Canada’s public service alone, and the opportunities to collaborate outside of government are substantial. Keren Perla is also a co-founder of Alberta CoLab, a project of the Government of Alberta and a space, team and approach for accelerating innovation and reimagining the policymaking process.

“The in-house lab gives government nimble access to specialized skill sets that are often provided by external experts, which can also be leveraged to help the public service embrace new and emerging ways of working. Internally, labs can help governments keep pace with emerging methodologies or new forms of evidence and data-generation that promise high-value but are potentially untested in a government context” says Perla.

“So many of the systems that we’ve relied on up until recently were mostly developed and deployed in the postwar period and are kind of past their ‘best by’ date. We really have to shift mindsets in public and among leaders about the need to focus more of our resources on creating a solutions ecosystem in Canada.” says Tim Dramin, Senior Advisor at McConnell Foundation.

Signs are strong that the lab approach in Canada will continue to grow.   On August 31st, a Federally appointed Co-Creation Steering Group released a Report on “Inclusive Innovation”. On their report website, ESDC says: “Governments all around the world, from the United Kingdom to South Korea, are harnessing this energy to move the needle on complex social, economic and environmental problems that matter to their citizens. They are investing in social innovation — ideas that, once adopted, help communities respond to a challenge or realize their aspirations more effectively than before.”  The strategic recommendations describe how the federal government can enable a similar shift in Canada using the levers at its disposal including grants, contributions and purchases, as well as legal and regulatory tools, training opportunities, and investment in social finance approaches.

Likewise, the Social R&D community had their annual national practice gathering in August (see: outside Ottawa, which included conversations immediately afterwards with innovators within the federal government.


Winnipeg Boldness is just one example of a social innovation lab that is advancing new solutions to chronic problems by working closely with diverse stakeholders and end users. Labs are using research, data, and social R&D to design, test, and evaluate community-level interventions to affect systemic change.

“Social labbing is process that involves surfacing solutions, prototyping those solutions and then figuring out how those solutions can scale to create systems change.” says Diane Roussin of the Winnipeg Boldness Project.

Alex Ryan, VP of Systems Innovation at the MaRS solutions lab says there are people who want to solve problems by talking about them, and people who want to move into action as soon as possible. “If it’s a complex issue, then no matter how long you talk about it, you’re never all going to see it the same way. And if it’s genuinely complex, we don’t actually know what action we need to take to solve it. So the lab offers a third path: let’s jointly experiment. It’s about finding breakthrough innovations with unusual partners. Bringing people together who wouldn’t necessarily talk or work together.”

On June 27th and 28th 2018, RADIUS SFU, a social innovation hub running multiple labs in Vancouver, convened 130+ active social innovation lab practitioners and key ecosystem enablers at an event they called CONVERGE.

In a report that followed a lab was defined as something:

  1. Thinking and acting across scales (systemic)
  2. With diverse stakeholders, including people with lived experience of problem (social)
  3. In sustained, iterative experiments (experimental)
  4. To solve highly complex, intergenerational, wicked problems (transformational)


The rapid growth of labs is exciting. 90% of social labs have been established in the last 5 years and close to half of those are less than two years old.



Over the five years, Canadian changemakers have generated the most diverse social innovation lab ecosystems in the world. They’re being established in government, non-profit, for-profit and academic sectors, addressing a wide range of intractable issues that Canadians care deeply about.


Market and Economic Innovation

    • Social Procurement
    • Micro-enterprise incubation
    • Local economic development
    • Growing the circular economy
    • Procurement innovation in long-term care facilities, universities & municipalities
    • Youth employment

Public Sector & Governance Innovation

    • Changes to Income Assistance Policy
    • Healthcare service redesign and patient-centred care
    • Mental health and addictions
    • Public servants training
    • Human-centred and systemic design in Ministry of Education
    • Immigration/Newcomer settlement
    • Justice system reform
    • New forms of government and services
    • Breaking down government silos
    • Action research partnerships with academics
    • Government funding of innovation

Equity, Reconciliation, Inclusion

    • Sustainable economic development in indigenous communities
    • Family Justice
    • Poverty
    • Racism
    • Reconciliation
    • Disability inclusion
    • Inclusion and accessibility to major cultural institutions

Food Access and Security

    • Healthy eating
    • Food waste, food security
    • Disconnections between food, culture and health
    • Strengthening supply side of local food system

Energy Transitions

    • Enabling workers to thrive in a low carbon economy
    • Economic development and diversification towards energy transition
    • Reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in oil sands


    • Civic engagement
    • Urban wellness and healthy city strategies
    • Innovation across multiple city strategies
    • Affordable housing
    • Newcomer settlement and enterprise
    • Open data and municipal regulation
    • Urban planning, parks engagement


The largest sources of funding for Canadian labs are philanthropy, non-profit partners, and entrepreneurial activity.


More data on Canadian labs here.


Many labs use a guiding ‘how might we’ question which defines the challenge the lab is working on. Here are some examples from Canadian labs. How might we :

  • Demonstrate that Canadian cities can be both innovative and equitable?
  • Create better conversations that embody everyone’s full humanity?
  • Embed design thinking to solve complex problems in healthcare?
  • Co-create new ventures and enhance paths to move from survival towards fair, meaningful livelihoods for refugee communities?
  • Foster connections across generations and cultures to create resilient communities in Nova Scotia that can adapt to their changing demographics?
  • Ensure that technology is fully beneficial to humanity?
  • Use collaboration as a force for a circular fibres economy?
  • Incorporate ecosystem values into the governance of the Columbia River Basin?
  • Use Alberta’s leadership position in today’s energy system as a platform for transition to the energy system the future requires of us?
  • Reimagine the response to youth homelessness through social innovation?
  • Leverage the purchasing power and reputational credibility of the healthcare sector to drive transformative change for more sustainable food systems?
what where.jpeg


Labs are producing promising solutions in record numbers, but many risk dying on the vine due to lack of awareness. Part of the work of Social Innovation Canada will be to help diverse stakeholders wayfind to solutions and align for impact.



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For more information about labs, to find or partner with with a lab, contact


This article makes use of original research and writing made available through Creative Commons including:

Indigenous doulas help keep families together in Winnipeg by Joanne Latimer

RADIUS SFU: What Are Labs?

The Canadian Labs Landscape Slide Deck

Learnings from CONVERGE

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